Earlier this year the courier company I ride for, Pedal Me, picked up a bit of media attention when it became public knowledge that, far from requiring riders to wear helmets, management does not permit us to do so.

I was not entirely convinced by the then CEO’s justification. He said that those wearing helmets take significantly more risks, which outweighs their safety benefits. I’m fine with the directive all the same. My sense is that the degree of risk we’re taking, in any direction, is so small as to be insignificant. The helmet conversation, whenever it comes up, only serves as a distraction from measures that actually do improve the safety of people on bikes: physically separated cycle routes and the enforcement of the laws governing motor vehicles. Besides, helmets are uncomfortable, look dorky, and would just be another item for me to lose, break, and/or forget.

What is of far greater protective benefit to me as an employee, however, is my union membership.

At its most simple, being a member of a trade union means I am never on my own. I am not on my own if things go badly, but I am not on my own if I want to try to improve conditions from within either.

That, ultimately, is what motivated me to join the IWGB and why I have been actively supporting the recent push for official recognition.

Even while complete democratic governance might be utopian, the best companies are certainly ones where the voice of the workers is listened to.

I can see why our request might not be viewed by those running the company as an act of affection, but we would all like it to be seen as coming from a positive place, and certainly not an act of aggression. We want to help make things better, not throw 15mm spanners into parts of machinery where they do not belong.

Most, if not all of us, already hold Pedal Me in an usually positive regard. If we didn’t, we would likely have left for greener pastures already.

I myself have already worked at Pedal Me for far longer than I originally imagined I would. And before I worked for them I was a customer and supporter, beginning with when I moved house four years ago. Pedal Me was a much smaller outfit back then, though already relatively well known, thanks to an appearance on the BBC’s Dragon’s Den, which earned them fans, if not direct investment. The company started with just a few riders and bikes, and now has more than fifty of both.

“Braz” was my rider that day. It wasn’t a long job, from the Brixton side of South London’s Brockwell Park to the top of Herne Hill on the other. It took two trips, using what I now know to be a “Carla” trailer - one of the smaller, lightweight ones.

I remember being impressed with the way everything was lashed together, using old inner tubes, awarded a second life. Not just cheaper than bungee cords, but better suited to the task of securing a load as well.

I didn’t book another job for another two years, by which point Pedal Me had increased the size of its operations and number of operatives. In the summer of 2020, at the height of the pandemic, I broke my collarbone. Needing to get across town to visit my mum in Maida Vale, but unable to cycle myself, and still virologically distrusting of public transport, an open air bike taxi was the perfect solution.

Roy was my chauffeur on one occasion, Petr gave me a lift home on another. Like Braz, both still work for Pedal Me. That says a lot, all of it positive, about the company.

It is somewhat serendipitous that I came to make the jump from customer to employee as an indirect result of being pushed out from my previous job, and subsequently persecuted by a boss who took a dislike to me, targeted me, treated me atrociously and acted as he did for no better reason than he could.

But it’s thanks to that unpleasant experience that I know, better than most, how expensive (mentally and materially) it can be to find yourself without employee protections when your employer decides to act against you.

My corner being absent of union officials - or anyone else - meant I was instead obliged to enlist the services of an expensive employment lawyer. Without going into detail, I won and it was worth it, but I’d rather have had recourse to a body that represents workers because it’s right, rather than one motivated by money.

My case involved an exceptionally cruel and vindictive corporate owner. I am completely confident that there’s nobody like that in the upper echelons of Pedal Me and I don’t think Pedal Me would treat me, or anyone else, in a similar fashion. But I can’t know they wouldn’t. I also don’t know, however good the management’s intentions, that they will always think about all the options, and do the right thing by the workers every time.

That experience was why I joined the IWGB at the earliest opportunity and why I have been actively involved with the push for official recognition by Pedal Me.

A union gives us the confidence that we have somewhere to turn if we feel we’re on the receiving end of poor treatment, or if we have any concerns at all about the company’s practices.

In almost every instance these will be the result of mistakes or accidents rather than malice, but if we can help iron them out it will be better for everyone.

A day spent riding for Pedal Me can contain far more variety than you’ll get for your average courier company. You might find yourself delivering for a food bank in Mile End in the morning, taking an office chair to Morden in late afternoon. From pink plastic dodos to people, if you can imagine it (up to a weight of 150kg, twice that with a trailer) we can probably carry it for you.

It can be interesting and even fun, but it is also highly skilled, physically demanding and often not without pressure. A lot of heavy lifting is required and injuries are always a risk. We are expected to ride long hours, rain or shine, through summer and winter, while still beating the traffic and conducting ourselves in exemplary fashion (woe betide someone who jumps a red light or rides on the pavement).

Speaking up when you think something isn’t right can be difficult, especially for someone who is new and inexperienced.

Union representation makes all of that easier, by amplifying the individual voice and multiplying the influence of the lone rider.

Things that matter a great deal to us, such as hourly pay, sick leave, disciplinary procedures and career development, will often fall under the banner of secondary concerns for senior staff who are trying to maximise the company’s performance as seen on a spreadsheet, or simply keep the whole thing afloat.

It is an acknowledgement rather than a criticism to say that, when push comes to shove, the management may see the company’s interests as disparate to those of the rank and file staff, placing the former ahead of the latter.

My view is that they are one and the same or, at the very least, that you cannot have a successful business without successful staff, who like the company, feel like they are part of something worthwhile, and are sure that they are being paid correctly and treated well.

By and large, most Pedal Me staff already feel like that.

By recognising IWGB as the worker’s union, Pedal Me’s management will ensure they stay that way. Beyond simply preventing things from getting worse, we will help to make things better as well. Higher rates of pay, commission transparency, consistent communication with the riders and better processes all-round can come from staff having a greater investment in where they work.

Our effort to unionise is not a matter of imposing a cost on the company, either. Ultimately a workforce that is more content when their employer is a better one, with lower rates of absence and reduced staff turnover, ultimately saving the company money.

Another underappreciated benefit is the way a union is a community of workers. Those Pedal Me riders who are IWGB members have already experienced the positive effects of having each other to turn to on good days and… less good days. We feel better about our jobs. We are less likely to leave. The “solidarity” - not a word I’m especially fond of - is real. It’s us who have built this community, rather than the management, but the company will benefit at least as much.

Pedal Me sells its service partly on the basis of being different from the Deliveroos and Ubers of this world. Slogans on the bikes advertise that the staff are treated well and the management even spend time doing deliveries themselves.

As things stand, the bosses have rejected the request for voluntary recognition. They have instead offered to facilitate an alternative, top-down process. That would involve them inviting various unions in to speak to staff and, within six months, holding a referendum on rider support for unionisation.

Many of us believe this to be a delaying tactic at best, an underhanded effort to make the whole thing go away at work. It’s certainly not a better way of doing things, as we already have almost two dozen card-carrying IWGB members in the company, with the numbers supporting us swelling every day. Ours is a worker-led movement. Democracy is already acting.

If Pedal Me wants to be a good company, one that actually does the right thing, rather than is seen to, it needs to agree to our request and give us a seat at the table.


Nick Christian (@nickchr1stian)

Nick is a cyclist and cycling journalist from South London